Re-Examining our Approach to Drug Policy Reform in the South

Re-Examining our Approach to Drug Policy Reform in the South

Written by Evan Eisenberg, President, University of South Florida SSDP

I had the opportunity to attend the invitation-only second meeting of the New Southern Strategy Coalition in Durham, North Carolina on February 7th and 8th. With leadership and funding from the Drug Policy Alliance, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Georgia Justice Project and  many other social justice-oriented organizations (direct service providers and policy reform advocates), the  goal of the meeting was to develop a new regional strategy for Southern states that will bolster efforts of reformers and activists working on reform within individual coalition states throughout the South. The meeting was titled “Reducing Barriers to Reentry and Supporting Front-End Drug Policy Reform” but the conference went so far beyond that scope to encompass issues of civil rights and racism and the criminal justice system in general throughout most Southern states. The agenda highlighted three main areas of focus: drug policy, harm reduction, and collateral consequences.


Panels for all in attendance were moderated and led by incredibly accomplished people with years, if not decades, of experience working on issues related to drug policy. Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice served as our host, bringing to the conference extensive legal knowledge and experience with the criminal justice system. Two breakout sessions gave us time to work in smaller groups and really discuss how we could partner with each other on certain issues. For example, Robert Childs (Executive Director, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition) was part of the syringe and crack pipe session I attended and gave me the contact information of a prominent homicide detective in Florida  who will likely be an ally in our fight to expand syringe access. I met a woman, Renee Snead, from the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center in Atlanta on that Thursday night and I have since connected her with the Georgia State University SSDP chapter, whom she hopes will be able to contribute to a drug policy conference she is hosting in Atlanta. Her organization focuses largely on issues related to reentry and most of her work is related to lifting the felony drug food stamp ban. The range of organizations represented allowed for many unlikely alliances and opportunities that may have simply been overlooked if we had not come together as members of this new movement in the South to fix our broken criminal justice system, tear down our racist institutions, and fight for the civil rights of all people.


Southern states must come to terms with our shared history of slavery and a deeply ingrained culture of white supremacy. The state’s rights argument that has gained traction in other parts of the country may carry some ugly connotations in the South due to the fact that the South actually seceded from the rest of the country during the Civil War. The South needs to acknowledge its ugly past in order to move forward and we need to understand the racist construction of Southern institutions in order to properly deconstruct them. By sharing both successful and unsuccessful state-specific strategies, coalition members hope to benefit from regional support gained through cooperation to achieve both state-specific goals and the coalition’s regional goals. The South leads the U.S. prison population growth trend, with Louisiana and Mississippi leading the country in incarceration rates and many other Southern states making the top ten of states in both incarceration rates and prison population growth. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one in 31 adults in the U.S. is under correctional control of some kind (jail, prison, probation, or parole) while one in 13 people in the state of Georgia are under correctional control. Incarceration rates for other southern states tend to be more similar to Georgia’s than the national rate.


Southern states, on average, have more barriers to reentry (post-incarceration) than other states in the areas of housing, employment, access to public benefits, voting rights, adoptive and foster parenting, and ability to acquire driver’s licenses, according to the Legal Action Center. All of these barriers to successful reentry create a nearly insurmountable obstacle for people trying to break the cycle of recidivism in the South due to the official collateral consequences that come with a felony conviction along with the massive stigma of having a drug arrest or having been incarcerated. All Southern states allow employers to consider arrests without convictions when making hiring decisions. These policies make the South the leader in perpetuating recidivism. Southern drug policy reformers must come to terms with the legacy of racism our region is cursed with and continues to be tainted by, but gain inspiration from civil rights leaders before us as we did when we visited the historic Durham Hay-Ti, which was traditionally a base of black community activism. In addition to still recovering from the deep scars left on both black and white Americans from the period of time in which the southern United States enslaved Africans, it is important to remember that the Southern states are the only region of our country to have ever been devastated by a real war.


Many people like to think that racism is gone and that we live in a post-racial America, but racism has been alive and strong within the institutions of the South since Europeans settled here. Too often, we try to talk about race without talking about race. Racism permeates all aspects of drug policy. We watched The House I Live In with Producer Melinda Shopsin and the film does a great job of explaining how drug prohibition was constructed in the United States based on racism. Considering race is also socially constructed, how can we expect to deconstruct drug prohibition, which turns out to be a racist construction based on an arbitrary construction (race), without talking honestly about race? We can’t and it’s time to stop avoiding the issue and patting ourselves on the back for doing what we think is right. How often do you think about what populations SSDP claims to serve as a social justice organization? We are fighting oppression if we are fighting for social justice, but who are we fighting on behalf of? Young black men are most disproportionately punished by the drug war, but I don’t remember seeing a lot of black men at any of our meetings or conferences. I am not suggesting that the drug war does not perpetrate injustice against white people, but if we are talking about social justice, then we are talking about some kind of inequality in the application of drug laws.


Disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system in the United States leads many black men to feel that they do not have a voice because they have grown up in a society where white supremacy is the deeply rooted, historic status quo and young black men are in the most likely demographic to be  arrested, incarcerated, and disenfranchised.  It takes an incredibly nuanced argument to convince poor, black communities that drug prohibition is destroying lives and families and making communities more dangerous to a much greater extent than drugs themselves, as discussed during the marijuana legalization breakout session (“A Review of Efforts to Legalize Marijuana and Ensure Access to Medical Marijuana in the South – Where Do We Go From Here?”). A history of oppression has led directly-affected individuals (incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, family member incarcerated) to disengage from the system because it appears to be beyond repair. The New Southern Strategy Coalition is reversing the trend of drug policy conversation being dominated by white intellectuals by having directly-affected individuals not only participate, but lead the conversation. The authenticity with which a formerly incarcerated black man talks about the injustice of our criminal justice system in the presence of others formerly incarcerated is unlike the kind of dialogue that the same person would have surrounded by a group with which he did not have that common ground.


The leaders of the conference often led with the fact that they were formerly incarcerated, not because they felt their sentence was just or made them better people, but because they were able to overcome the shame that accompanies any criminal record. They broke through the barriers of collateral consequences, came to terms with their incarceration whether they felt it was just or unjust, and became lawyers, teachers, researchers, doctors, pastors, community advocates, etc. The Drug Policy Alliance along with various coalition members funded an incredible conference in which race and racism were encouraged to be talked about openly and everyone was expected to embrace the discomfort that came with doing so. White people got up in front of everyone and admitted that we are afraid to talk about race. It makes us nervous and uncomfortable to think that racism still exists, but the ugly truth is that it does and it is part of our history as a country and especially as a region (the South). Reactions to The New Jim Crow were mixed because many black people did not realize that we had ever recovered from the original Jim Crow laws! And that’s because we have not. Our country is as racist as ever, but it’s insidious and systematic and hidden from public view because we want to believe in the notion of a post-racial America. It makes us feel good. We did it! But racism is all too real when it comes to drug policy.


Southern drug policy reformers and other social justice advocates must confront the legacy of racism and decades of “tough on crime” policies. The panel following a screening of The House I Live In at the conference was one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. It brought together a group of people who had witnessed the drug war from every angle and brought every conceivable viewpoint to the table to discuss drug policy. Reactions obviously differ, so the panel with Melinda Shopsin (Producer), Asha Bandele (Drug Policy Alliance), Judge Elaine Bushfan (14 District Superior Court of North Carolina), James Williams (Orange County Public Defender’s Office), Nia Wilson (Community Advocate), Ronald Martin (North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, former Detective Sergeant), and Jim Woodall (District Attorney, Orange and Chatham Co., North Carolina) was nothing short of amazing. The members of the panel represented drug warriors and reformers approaching the issue from all sides. The DA, public defender, and Judge talked much more freely than they would have in a courtroom or other professional setting and they unanimously acknowledged that drug prohibition has been a massive failure, with Judge Bushfan, a black woman who has been a North Carolina judge for nearly two decades, becoming particularly emotional about the fact that her job requires her to send a  disproportionate number of young black men  to jail or prison, which is not her personal idea of justice.


The unusual combination of organizations and people represented in the Coalition and the discussions we had led us to understand how the various social justice-related policy reform and direct services we were working on all addressed the same core problem, which is the disproportionate number of people of color represented in the poorest and most deprived classes of people and the horrifying oppression that people representing the bottom rung of society face. An example of what some might consider an unusual alliance was the marijuana legalization panel, during which Pastor Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), discussed how he used scripture to reach out to Christian groups about marijuana decriminalization in the same session that Dr. Harry Levine (City University of New York) gave out detailed maps quantifying the racial disparities in arrests and convictions for drug offenses. A new kind of civil rights movement began to emerge as the conference went on. We were no longer a number of individuals coming together for a conference, but we were the movement! We realized the scope of the injustice we were dealing with and the numerous ways in which people were ultimately tackling the same problems. Drug policy reform is an integral facet, which is why the Drug Policy Alliance chose to provide funding for a conference that was not just specific to drug policy. Many people who came to the conference from an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention perspective left understanding how their issue related to drug policy reform, sentencing reform and the work done by direct service providers like syringe exchange programs, run by small organizations that know how to get a lot done like the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.


Reverend Edwin Sanders (Metropolitan Interdenominational Church) and DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann spoke on a fascinating panel about what role race plays in drug policy reform. My understanding is that the main issue was the importance of explicitly addressing racial disparities in drug policy reform before decriminalizing drugs, with the fear being that racial disparities may lessen some, but become further entrenched after decriminalization if not addressed  before or simultaneously. The opposing viewpoint was that decriminalizing drugs will ultimately lead to more equal outcomes for different races in all areas of life. The discussion also related to messaging and whether using the word “race” or language with racial connotations is a successful strategy when trying to pass legislation in the South.


I believe that SSDP can really learn from something one of the leaders said about the Coalition: we need to love each other enough to tell each other the truth. We need to call each other on our bullshit and we need to take a minute from time to time to question what it is we are doing and why we’re doing it, and to consider who we are having an effect on and what their thoughts might be. Are the people that we’re claiming to help being consulted and voicing their concerns as active participants and NOT tokens within our movement? I asked my chapter at a meeting why young black men were most affected by the drug war, but we did not have a single black, male member. I didn’t have any good answers, but it generated an incredible discussion in which everyone respectfully voiced their  honest opinions on race and racism in drug policy reform from their perspectives. It was so incredibly refreshing for everyone to just speak honestly and I think our chapter has gotten close enough to where we all love each other enough to tell each other when someone has a bad idea or our leadership is pointing us in the wrong direction or we feel that the organization as a whole is not doing quite what we hoped.


SSDP has without a doubt tried to increase diversity, but the organization as a whole has not done enough to ensure that directly-affected people have a clear voice within our movement. We run the risk of appearing inauthentic when we fail to consult the people we claim to help in a meaningful way. We need to recognize that our culture is one of white supremacy and that the South in particular is still coming to grips with a legacy of horrific racism that hurts everyone. If our members are not able to relate to the population we claim to help, then we are being disingenuous. We need to find out what the problem is before we can try to fix it. If we lack representation from directly-affected groups, then I think it’s time that we ask ourselves why that’s the case. Is it important to remedy? Can we do advocacy work on behalf of people who do not have a voice in our organization? I think that to a certain extent we have to, but I think we need to talk about the fact that the majority of our members are white when we claim to fight for social justice and drug policy reform, which logically means that  the voices of young black men should be very well represented within our organization.


We need to decide what all of this means for our organization and our advocacy efforts. We need to decide who we are advocating for and that should include a lot of people asking, “Why?” We need to embrace discomfort and talk about what race and racism mean within the drug  policy reform community or we risk doing what I said before, which is talk about race while trying to avoid talking about race. If that happens, then no matter what we come up with, it will be inauthentic and arguably even paternalistic. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that people take the time to ask themselves the questions. Who are we representing and is their voice easily heard within our organization? The people we have as members will affect what the most effective messaging techniques for us will be. We will need to know when our organization should be in a leadership capacity for policy change and when we should work behind the scenes. Many organizations (the NAACP comes to mind) work on bills and advocacy behind the scenes because they don’t want their organzation’s name associated with a bill for fear that it will hurt its prospects of getting passed.  I think it’s time for some self-reflection and I think our conferences need to be less about preaching to the choir and more about trying to challenge our own viewpoints. I love when important people tell me that I’m doing a good job, but the movement is not advancing its level of discourse. What could we be wrong about and what can we do better? Chanting and talking about our accomplishments is great and it’s necessary to prevent burnout,  but we need to push ourselves further and really figure out what we’re doing as an organization. Who are we advocating on behalf of? Are those voices heard within our movement? Do we avoid using people as tokens? Do our speakers and panels challenge our existing views of drug policy reform? I believe that a new level of nuanced arguments made within and by SSDP will vastly improve the effectiveness of our organization and the ability of our members to enact real change in their communities.


We need to see the bigger picture when it comes to Southern drug policy reform and understand that we are trying to accomplish the same goals of hundreds of groups that we should be cooperating and sharing with, rather than seeing them as competitors for the same funding. As Dr. Michio Kaku stated when he visited USF, we constantly are trying to find ways to better divide the existing pie when the answer is to expand the pie. He, of course, was talking about the ability science has to improve peoples’ lives, but the same principle can be applied to cooperation with regional Coalition members. We can all increase our social and political capital by networking with each other and make do with the same amount of resources by cooperating on similar projects. The Coalition’s regional efforts will bolster state efforts particularly through the sharing of information and funding, but one of the messages of the Coalition meeting, that the South needs to recognize a shared racist history of white supremacy built into our institutions, can be applied to the drug policy movement as a whole. We need to understand the racist construction of drug prohibition in order to deconstruct both drug prohibition and socially constructed racial disparities that the drug war perpetuates.